Joe and I have lived in Central FL/Orlando region, an area that has had its share of natural and man-made disasters, for the past 15 years, and we were frequent visitors for years and years before that. We’ve also have also had the opportunity to visit many places around the world, several of which have experienced their own tragedies – Key West FL, which has been ravaged by dozens of hurricanes over the years, Anaheim and Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the areas in California that experienced massive fires in recent weeks, Kyoto Japan, an city that suffered a huge earthquake in the 90s, and of course, Las Vegas NV, where a mass shooting took place just a couple of weeks ago. You know what I’ve discovered? Your perception of tragedy in a tourist town as a visitor and as a resident are very, very different. And once you’ve experienced a catastrophic event as a resident, your perception of other tourist towns that have experienced similar issues are different yet again, even when you’re just there as a tourist.
I remember when the Orlando/Kissimmee area sustained several tornadoes in February 1998. I was still a New Yorker at the time but was traveling to WDW 4-6 times per year. As a frequent visitor, my primary concern was the theme parks. I hoped they would be OK and operational for my next trip, which was only a week away. I didn’t really think about the people who lived and worked in the area; I was only worried about the parks. I think that’s an absolutely normal response many people feel, but in hindsight I think it’s a little bit self-centered, as well, but in an acceptable way. People wait months or years for a Disney vacation, and put a lot of time, effort and money into it. For there to be the possibility of it having to be cancelled, yeah, I think disappointment, even in the face of others’ potential losses, would be an absolutely normal thing to feel.
Fast forward 6 years. We were living in Orlando and hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne ravaged Central Florida all within just a few weeks of each other in the summer of ’04. Although well prepared, we still had to “rough it” until our electricity and other services were restored. And although we were glad the theme parks came through OK, we were much happier than our home had survived with only minor damage; not all of the people we knew were so lucky.
In June of 2016, a gunman killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL. Although Joe and I didn’t personally know anyone who had been murdered, we knew many people who had hung out at Pulse on a regular basis, and/or people who knew one or more of those who had been either injured or killed in the shooting, which took place in a building we both passed several times per month. Tragedy had hit our entire community and as we grieved with the rest of Central Florida, we felt sad, scared and violated, but to this very day, we try to stay #Orlandostrong as we slowly heal from the event.
Fast forward to 2017 – Irma was a huge Category 5 hurricane that had the potential to affect every single person in the state of Florida. While taking a break from preparing our house for the storm, I looked at Facebook and saw people worrying about their upcoming vacations. Now, from my point of view, this was a huge hurricane and many were potentially going to lose their houses, the buildings where they worked and possibly even their lives, and here I was, reading about people who were worried about their vacations. On one level, I totally got it – I was that very person during the ’98 tornadoes, and accepted that was a perfectly reasonable reaction. But as a resident, yeah, it was a whole different ballgame.
Fast forward one last time to October 2017. Joe and I had a long-planned 2-week trip to Phoenix, Sedona, Las Vegas, Anaheim and Hollywood. As it turned out, our visits were in the midst of the Anaheim fires and just two weeks after the mass shooting in Vegas. And as our trip loomed closer, my primary thoughts weren’t about our vacation destinations, but the people who had lost their homes or businesses or people they loved, and how much those cities would be hurting. Thankfully, the fires were under better control by the time we got to Anaheim. And while we were in Las Vegas, we made sure to visit the makeshift memorial for the shooting victims, just as thousands of people have taken time out of their vacations to see the memorial at the Pulse building. We paid our respects, not only to those who were lost, but as residents of a tourist town who understood exactly what the people of Las Vegas were going through.
Obviously, perception will vary based on the who, what, why, where, when and how. And, of course, I hope you never have to experience a tragedy or the potential for one where you live. But if you do, I’d bet your perception regarding others in similar experiences, in places you travel to, will be forever changed.
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